‘I don’t propose throwing them out on the street, Cat, you know that.’
She was angry, extremely angry. There had to be another way. She should have been asked, consulted, her opinions heard.
‘I feel as if I’m incidental to everything,’ she said, knowing that she sounded petulant and hating herself for it. She had been feeling tired and stressed for weeks, irritable with the children, short-fused at the surgery. Furious with Simon, way beyond what he deserved simply for failing to turn up for supper and forgetting to let her know.
‘I’m sorry, John, that was petty of me. Of course you had to say something. And it makes sense to try and make one major saving. Close C ward and we give ourselves room to manoeuvre for a while … Or we could simply close the day care unit altogether for the time being.’
They had reached the reception area. A couple were sitting together, holding hands. Two women were talking to one of the nurses. The phone was ringing. They went on down the corridor to Cat’s tiny office. The phone was ringing there too. She took the call quickly, made a couple of notes.
‘That would save on staffing, equipment, running costs – they’re pretty high in the unit, you know. I’d hate to be without it, but it would mean the staff weren’t so stretched, we could absorb the loss of two nurses better. Therapeutically, psychologically, practically, the day care unit is invaluable but it isn’t indispensable. It’s an extra for us. I still feel our expertise is in the wards. Pain control, the best nursing for terminal patients, the best possible palliative care. I’m still not fully convinced about hospice at home – I think we do better in-house, frankly. And the day unit could be regarded as icing on the cake.’
‘How much would we save?’
‘I‘d have to ask Clive. He’s the financial whizz, not me.’
‘I meant to ask, what do you think of Leo?’
‘I like him. He’s got down to things, he’s understood the urgency. I’m impressed. I’m glad you could persuade him, John. I went out to see his nursing home by the way, though it hadn’t quite opened its doors then. I was impressed by that too. Leo Fison seems to be a good thing all round.’
John Lowther smiled. A sad smile, Cat thought. The smile of a man who has all but forgotten how a smile is done.
‘Listen, John – what about you? How are you coping?’
The smile shrank back into the shadows and hollows of his face.
‘It drags on. They have this television business tomorrow.’
‘Yes. Will you go?’
‘Oh no. No. I do wonder what use it can be at this distance, you know. I hope this isn’t just being made for – for voyeurs, for cheap thrills. I couldn’t bear that.’
‘I’m sure it isn’t. My brother wouldn’t have authorised it if he hadn’t thought it was worthwhile.’
‘I dare say you’re right. Let me know when Clive has done his sums, would you? Then we can make a decision.’
‘Yes, I will,’ Cat said. ‘Thank you, John. Thank you as ever.’
He raised his arm as he walked away.
THERE HAD BEEN hundreds of phone calls to the police hotline immediately after the disappearance of Harriet Lowther. Computers had been in their infancy but most of the calls had been logged electronically, though some had been taken down by hand and put onto index cards, which were later entered into the database. Simon had asked for those that had been flagged up as containing material of use. Within them were a few which were marked with red asterisks. It was early evening, the station was quietening down, and he was going through them one by one. Somewhere, in here, he thought, sitting up and stretching his back and rolling his shoulders, somewhere might be the one vital nugget of gold. Might be. But probably wasn’t.
There were two separate murder inquiries, he had stressed in a conference earlier – though ‘conference’ was giving a grand name to a meeting of three people. Cold cases were not a priority. Last week a driver had mounted the pavement in a 4 x 4, hitting a mother and her child in a buggy, and killing them both, before reversing, knocking over a man and leaving him with injuries from which he died, then fleeing the scene.
The following day, a house on the outskirts of Lafferton had been entered in the middle of the night, the elderly occupants bound, gagged and beaten, and a large quantity of antiques and jewellery stolen. The woman had subsequently died and her husband was in intensive care. It had been a thoroughly professional job, there were no fingerprints, no footprints and the burglar alarm system had been disabled, probably a couple of days before, by a man with an apparently bona fide ID coming to do an inspection after the ‘reporting of a fault’.
These incidents were taking all the resources of CID and Simon was the SIO of the burglary. They were short of both time and bods.
‘My name’s Mary Salway. Can you reassure me that my name won’t be made public please? I just think you might … you should know about the man – Ronald … Ronald Pyment … he was clipping his hedge, it said, when she went by – the girl who’s disappeared … only he was cautioned for kerb-crawling … it’s a few years ago now but it’ll be in the records, won’t it? Only can you make sure my name doesn’t come out, we have to live with our neighbours.’
Which should have been picked up at the time, though Serrailler had found no mention of it. Now Ronald Pyment was dead.
‘Joan Cook, 24 Pines Lane, Lafferton. I was on the bus. I remember seeing her at the stop, only … I’ve been thinking, racking my brains, you know, and I know I saw her at the stop, holding her tennis racket, but … this might be stupid but … I don’t remember her getting on the bus. I suppose she must have and I was looking out of the other window, only … I just thought I should say. I don’t remember her getting on. Sorry, this is wasting your time, isn’t it?’
No. It was not. He put a ‘check’ beside it and went on.
‘Er … I don’t … I might have seen something to do with the girl. I might … she was at the bus stop. It was the girl who’s gone missing, I’m pretty sure … I was … nearby. That day. She had fair hair in a ponytail, tennis racket … funny, I noticed the name on the cover, Slazenger, it struck me because I had one that same make – well, years ago … only … there was something else. I was … I was getting into my car … I saw her definitely. The thing is … I saw the bus … I’m pretty sure it was that same bus. Only she didn’t get on it. Definitely, she – I’ve got to go, sorry. (I don’t think she got on it …)’
There was a note. Caller wouldn’t give name. Tried to get number to call back but was a public phone box in Bevham. DC J. Peters.
The others were about a man who was a known paedophile living in the same village as the Lowthers and one from a clergyman who thought he had seen Harriet with a boy a bit older than herself, leaning against the wall outside his church and seeming ‘intimate’, on the day before her disappearance.
Details about the paedophile were noted but it took only a few minutes for him to find that the man had left the district altogether, to live in Spain. An A.T. Cook still lived at 24 Pines Lane. Simon could go there later. The last two callers were linked because both expressed doubt as to whether Harriet had actually boarded the bus. So why had no one checked them against each other? Perhaps they had, but if so the reports of interviews were not in the files, he was quite sure.
The anonymous caller might not have been traced but Joan Cook should have been interviewed.
It was little enough but it was something. If Harriet had indeed failed to get on the bus for which she was waiting, why?
He read over the call from the clergyman. Katie had wondered if Harriet might have had a boyfriend, though she doubted it; this call suggested she had been seen with one. Who was he? How serious was it – boyfriend, or friend who was a boy? Simon did not remember any other mention of a boyfriend in the files, but he made a note to himself to check back. Too much detail, too much reading and rereading.
The filming started early. He was there at seven o’clock, by which time the crew was assembled, and standing beside one of the BBC vans was a girl resembling Harriet Lowther. Right age, height, colouring. Simon looked at the girl. Her features were not the same as Harriet’s. That didn’t matter. But something niggled in his mind as he watched her. Something. There was nothing wrong, as far as he could tell. The clothes, shoes, hair, tennis racket, all seemed right. No, nothing wrong. So why the niggle?
They had managed to get hold of a bus of the same model as the ones used in Lafferton at the time – they had all changed four years ago, but a few towns and cities still had some of the old type in service and the one they had borrowed was now parked up in a lay-by. Most other traffic had been diverted around this section of the road but the greengrocer’s van was beside the bus, and people who had been driving, cycling or walking in the area at the time had been urged to attend. There were not many.
In the Cadsdens’ road, they had a man on a ladder, hedge clippings on the path.
Simon traced the route Harriet had taken, walking from the Cadsden house, past the hedge clipper, up to the main road and across it, and then along to the bus stop. The bus approached on its first practice run. The greengrocer’s van was immediately behind. Anyone noticing Harriet Lowther waiting could have been on the same side of the road as her or on the opposite side, but once the bus pulled in, only a passer-by on the same side would have known if she had boarded it or not – the bus itself hid the view of the stop from the opposite pavement.
It wasn’t much of a detail but he noted it.
Now, the girl playing Harriet was being walked down and positioned at the bus stop, the bus itself having been driven off and turned a couple of hundred yards higher up the road.
Serrailler looked at the double. Fair hair. Shorts, blue sweatshirt, trainers, small bag. Tennis racket.
He texted Cat. ‘Medical query. Can teenager with 4 toes excel @ tennis? Good sprinter 2. Si.’
Pines Lane was not a lane but a street of 1930s semi-detached houses that had seen better days. Hedges and several patches of lawn had been removed from the fronts, the occasional car or motorbikes parked there. But 24 was neat. A picket fence, a wrought-iron gate, clean windows.
He rang the bell, memories of door-to-door flooding back. Other people’s houses, other people’s lives – he had learned to look, take in, assess, store away, snippets of this or that, details seen or heard. They were useful.
The man was holding an electric iron and a plug.
Serrailler showed his card. ‘I wonder if Mrs Joan Cook still lives here?’
‘Is it possible to have a word with her? I‘d like –’
‘About that girl?’ He held the door open. ‘She wondered if you’d come. I said you wouldn’t bother. Wrong as usual. Joan?’
There was a polished oak table. A standard lamp. A Turkey-red carpet runner. A small brass gong. It smelled clean. They could have been standing here forty years ago and everything would have fitted.
‘You were right. This is a Detective Chief Superintendent. Do you want to go in the front room? I must get the plug back on this. Shall I make something?’
He wore a beige sleeveless pullover. She wore beige slacks. Grey hair. No make-up.
Forty years ago? Sixty. Nothing had changed in houses like this.
The front room. Brasses. Fire irons. Another gong. A small bell. Indian civil service somewhere along the line. His father? Hers? More Turkey red. Moquette upholstery. An upright piano. Photographs in frames standing on a linen cloth.
‘Do sit down. I knew you’d come. I should have telephoned again really, shouldn’t I? But when I said to my husband, he thought not. It isn’t that I have anything new to say. What I said when I rang at the time is all there is, I’m afraid. Poor girl.’
She sat on the edge of her chair, opposite to him.
‘I can remember it very well. I don’t know why it stuck in my mind at the time but once it had I couldn’t get it out. That’s why I rang of course. And then when I read about you finding her … I knew you’d come.’
The door opened.
‘Tea or coffee?’ the husband said.
Serrailler knew the sort of coffee he might get. ‘Tea please.’
‘Make a big pot, Peter. We’ll all have it.’
The door closed.
‘Can you tell me why you were on the bus that afternoon, Mrs Cook?’
‘I can. I‘d been to visit my aunt. She’s gone now, went the year afterwards. She was getting on for ninety then. She was in the residential home – it’s closed now – Leafield Lodge. I came out and walked up to the bus stop – that’s about four or five away from the one … where the young girl was waiting. The bus wasn’t long coming.’
‘Did you always get the bus to and from seeing your aunt?’
‘Yes. We don’t have a car. Neither of us drives. We’ve never seen the need for a car, we believe in public transport.’
The Cooks probably believed in quite a few things. And did not believe in even more.
‘Can you tell me where you sat?’
‘On the pavement side halfway down. I always try to sit in the middle of buses and trains. My mother had it that you were safer in the middle. Why is that? My husband says it’s true of planes too but I’ve never flown in one so I wouldn’t know. Yes, in the middle of the bus I‘d have been.’
‘I’m going to take this all down as a fresh statement, Mrs Cook. So if you remember anything new or want to change what you said originally, this is the time.’
But there was nothing new and she did not change anything. The statement was almost word for word the same as the one she had made just after the disappearance.
She had been seated on the left-hand side of the bus and as it had travelled down Parkside Drive she had seen a girl at the next stop, with fair hair and carrying a tennis racket. There had been no one else there. The bus had slowed down and had been overtaken by other traffic as it pulled in but she had not registered any vehicles in particular. She had been looking out at the stop, and became aware that the automatic doors had swung open but that no one had got on, and after a moment the driver had pressed the button to close them and pulled out into the road again. That was all. She had barely registered that the waiting girl had not got on the bus after all. It was only when she had read about Harriet’s disappearance, and her description and last-known movements, that she had recalled her, thought about it, talked to her husband – and then rung the special police line. But if Harriet Lowther had not boarded the bus, Joan Cook had no idea what else she might have done or where she had gone. Nor had Serrailler.